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Protester Suspended From Job, Later Reinstated by Institute

By W.S. Wang


After being briefly suspended with pay for protesting at a Royal Dutch/Shell recruitment meeting, MIT employee Henry D. Sterrett has been reinstated as an administrative assistant for the Dupont-MIT alliance.

Sterrett’s suspension raised questions about freedom of speech at MIT, especially concerning the Institute’s corporate ties.

Sterrett was suspended at the end of the business day on October 5 as a result of his participation in a protest at a Shell recruiting event the night before. The protest was initiated by the MIT Social Justice Cooperative in response to alleged environmental and human rights violations by Shell.

In addition to handing out flyers, one of which read, “Why Shell? Because we get the job done at any cost,” protesters voiced their concerns during the question and answer portion of the event.

Criticism led to suspension

Sterrett and others were deeply concerned by the administration’s initial reaction. Sterrett maintains that he attended the event spontaneously after receiving an e-mail from the SJC. According to Sterrett, “Patricia Reilly [Dupont-MIT Alliance Program Manager] said she got complaints from people in the Chemical Engineering Department who saw me handing out the flyers, and they were upset.”

Sterrett works for the Dupont-MIT alliance rather than the Chemical Engineering department. Department Head and Professor Robert C. Armstrong nevertheless felt that he “might have to issue an apology to Shell directly because of [Sterrett’s] actions.”

On Friday afternoon, Audrey Jones Childs, director of administration for the Biotechnology Center, handed Sterrett the letter of suspension pending review which, Sterrett said, “came as a real shock.” Neither Reilly nor Jones Childs could be reached for comment.

MIT’s speech policy questioned

Provost Brown said that “peaceful expression of free speech is fully supported by the MIT administration.”

However, Sterrett argued that MIT needs to “draft a clear policy protecting free speech for its employees so that employees can feel truly comfortable speaking out respectfully on issues.”

“This incident demonstrates the need for the MIT community to question MIT’s relationship to corporations,” Sterrett said.

Aimee L. Smith G, a member of the SJC who attended the protest, agreed. “If you can’t freely speak in a university setting,” she said, “where exactly are the centers of open dialogue, of thinking and challenging new ideas?”

Student action sped reinstatement

The SJC launched an e-mail campaign to President Charles M. Vest and Provost Robert A. Brown over the weekend following Sterrett’s suspension.

According to Brown, Sterrett was reinstated on October 9 after a “senior administrator reviewed the case as fast as possible with all the facts.” Brown said that the petitions from SJC did not influence their decision. He also says that Shell was not involved in the initial decision to suspend Sterrett.

Sterrett, on the other hand, believes that the e-mail campaign led to his reinstatement. “My perception was that if they suspended me and nobody said anything, then I would have learned the lesson that you don’t challenge a corporation,” Sterrett said. “I probably would have been dismissed.”

Rima Arnaout contributed to the reporting of this story.